Photo from Sugar Hill by Dan Klarmann

The Contra Dance Event

You can't really say there is any one creator of a dance....Each time the dance is done is in some sense a new creation of that dance. And although you can often fix a name to the person who wrote the dance,...any particular time that dance is done it will be a creation of the caller, the band, and the dancers. (Bixby 1990)

Before we look in detail at the construction and form of the contemporary contra dance, the stage must be set through an examination of the players: the dancers, the caller, and the musicians at the contra dance event as we know it today. The choreography is only a skeleton of potential until it is actually performed at a particular place and a particular time. The most important players are, of course, the dancers, and we will begin by exploring some of the reasons they choose to participate in contra dancing.

The Dancers

The dancers are the heart of the contra dance event and its reason for being. The event is designed primarily to give them an enjoyable experience as they relate to the music and to one another. Surveying some of the reasons that dancers participate in contra dancing will give us insight into these events, since they are molded to a large extent around the dancers' needs and expectations.

According to my informants, one of the primary reasons that dancers participate in social dance is the need to belong to a community. Attending a local contra dance event regularly provides the dancer with a group of people with whom he or she can identify, and with whom a shared sense of community and belonging can develop. This community feeling begins within each dance set, as a dancer performs figures requiring the presence and cooperation of a small group of other people; and it occurs at the level of the local dance community as a whole, as participants spend regular time together dancing. David Kaynor, a caller and musician from Montague, Massachusetts, clarified for me several levels of community that he saw operating in contra dance groups:

There's the community of the couple....You take hands four, you have the community...of four people. And then there's the whole set as a community. And then the whole dance crowd as a community. And then you have the larger dance community of a region....And I think that a lot of people find that that's a very fulfilling thing, to have that sense of community. (Kaynor 1990b)

George Marshall, a caller and musician from Belchertown, Massachusetts, suggests the role of the dance community in establishing the identity of participants:

When you say...I'm a contra dancer,'s like saying I'm a nurse, or I'm a ditch-digger....It's sort of a way of identifying yourself, and ordering the world and universe. (Marshall 1990)

Those dancers who regularly attend dance workshops and dance camps will even experience this sense of community on a national level as they meet the same dance friends again and again. Don Theyken, a caller from Ann Arbor, Michigan, described to me his experience with these wider connections:

You have dance friends all over the country. You can go into a dance almost any place and you'll recognize somebody. Or if you don't recognize somebody, you'll be talking and you'll say well so-and-so, and you'll know some of the same people. And there's this connection that is there. And that's a good feeling. (Theyken 1990)

This sense of community frequently extends itself beyond the dancing, through contacts and exchanges among contra dancers outside of the dance event itself. Often these interactions are a direct result of the shared experience of the dance and the feelings of cooperation that result. A good example of this extension of community feeling was related to me by Becky Hill, a caller in the Cleveland dance community. Becky organized several dances for the blind, to which people with a variety of handicaps came, and she went to her community of dancers and asked for some experienced dancers to come and help out. At the first event about a dozen experienced dancers came. The second event attracted over twenty community members. When the local dance musicians heard that she had used records the first time (and a variable speed record player), they came and played live music, even though it meant playing the tunes at dirge speed. Carol Kopp, another caller from the Cleveland area, observed:

What is really neat about Becky's calling for this that it kind of pulls the dance community together, because people feel that this is something they can share with other people. And they're very enthusiastic about helping out. And it's really great for the community to see this happening. (Kopp 1990)

Another motivating force for those who participate in contra dancing is the need for a safe place to meet and socialize with other people, especially members of the opposite sex. Ted Sannella, for decades a major force in Boston area dancing and now from Wiscasset, Maine, speaks for many when he says:

It's a great social activity, a way to meet people, to socialize and have a good time with a group of people. Not just one or two....At a contra dance you meet lots of people in the course of the evening. You're interacting with lots of different people, and there's no commitment to any. (Sannella 1990a)

People need places to congregate with other people where they feel comfortable. The dance event provides such a place for contra dancers. It is a safe place to meet members of the opposite sex and to touch them, without feeling any obligation to pursue the relationship further. The following comments are typical:

One of the most obvious reasons is the whole singles experience, you know, going and finding a potential partner,...going and finding the sexual thrill. (Kaynor 1990b)

It's a low pressure place where you can interact with the opposite sex and not have to worry if they're going to be asking you to come back to their place after the dance. (Pearl 1990)

It's like the most laid back of all the dating services. It's a do-it-yourself dating service. (Park 1990)

Over the course of many weeks of dancing, the participants can learn a great deal about one another without involving themselves in any commitment whatsoever, and can then choose to pursue a friendship outside the dance event if they wish.

In addition to being safe for the dating game, the contra dance event is safe for dancers on a number of other levels. It provides a structure for social interaction which takes much of the responsibility off of the individual, making it a comfortable place to relate for someone who is shy or socially ill at ease:

It's a place where a shy person has built-in topics for conversation. You know that experience...where you go somewhere and you just don't feel like you have anything to talk about? You feel just sort of like a bump on a log? But at a contra dance you go and if all else fails, you can talk about the music and the band and the caller and the dance figures and other dancers you met....There's a whole bunch of real structured codified movements and behaviors that [the dancers] don't have to initiate....It gives them a whole backdrop of things that they can do, that somebody else thought of, that they can talk about and react to, without having to take responsibility for conceiving and initiating them. (Kaynor 1990b)

This safety extends to touching as well. Dancers can touch each other without any sense of discomfort or commitment, which is a rare thing to find in a social situation, and this is important to a lot of dancers. Bernard Chalk, a visiting caller from England, explained to me how this sense of safety begins on the dance floor:

You're telling them what to do. Just bring on a partner, join hands in a big ring. And you're immediately licensing people who've never perhaps danced before, or don't know anybody at that dance, to go and hold hands with somebody else in a circle. (Chalk 1990)

The feeling of safety extends to the dance hall itself, an environment which is a far cry from a bar or a singles scene in the city. This kind of safety was described to me by Steve Zakon, a caller from East Sullivan, New Hampshire:

There're so many, you know, more disgusting ways to meet people in our society these days. Especially in the city. I mean when you think about it, [contra dancing] really is a wonderful way to meet people. It's alcohol-free, smoke-free, you know. The lights are on bright. (Zakon 1990)

The safety inherent in the contra dance event is sufficiently great that the event often attracts people who are for one reason or another social misfits, and who find that at the contra dance they can be a part of a group that will not turn them away. Several of my informants commented on this phenomenon:

Many times the people that are involved in dancing are people who don't do well socially, for whom dance is their only ability to spend time with other people....You can give yourself the illusion of, look at all these people that I know, without knowing them and having them know you. (Elberger 1990)

It seems to me like [a] critical mass of psychologists, at some point they all met at some national convention, and enough of them were dancers that somebody stood up and said, "hey, here's a community who will accept anybody, regardless. And we ought to tell our patients about the dance communities in our towns."...And bingo, just like out of nowhere they just started appearing. (Park 1990)

This has not become a major problem in dance communities as far as I know, but it appears to be a trend which has developed because the dance event provides safety on so many levels.

Many of my informants mentioned enjoyment of the music as an important motivation for participation in the contra dances. The music is live, it is often of high quality, and the event is cheap. David Kaynor elaborated upon this:

There may be just really fantastic music which you get to participate in for like four or five bucks. Whereas if you went to the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, you'd have to probably pay at least nine or ten to sit there with your hands folded, you know, and obey a whole lot of house rules. Like you can't get up and boogie, and you're not supposed to talk loudly, and, you know, you have to spend a lot of money on drinks. (Kaynor 1990b)

Another motivating factor for dancing is the opportunity for exercise, after one has perhaps been at a desk job all day. Larry Edelman, a caller and musician from Baltimore, Maryland, shared with me his conversations about the importance of the contra dance as exercise:

I know lots of people who've told me, hey I work with computers all week long, I have a high pressure job, I have a lot of demands on me....Those two nights a week I go to contra dance I want to go there, I want to dance fast, I want to dance hard, and I want to stay active. And that's my aerobic exercise, that's my cardiovascular fitness. (Edelman 1990)

Some people are attracted to dancing by the intellectual challenge. They enjoy memorizing patterns, and seeing how the intricacies of the choreography work themselves out, which adds a dimension of interest beyond the purely physical movement.
There are dancers who participate in contra dancing because it is an expression of values that are important to them, particularly the idea of home-made fun, as opposed to the passive enjoyment of the media:

A lot of us live here [in rural New Hampshire] with this idea of being more self-sufficient than you can be in a city. We try to grow our own food as much as we can, and we try to, you know, reduce our energy use, or provide our own, and things like that. And I look on [contra dancing] as self-sufficient entertainment. We're doing it for ourselves. It's a group of people providing the music, providing the calling, and doing the dancing, instead of plopping down in front of a TV and just having it be all passive entertainment. (Zakon 1990)

As dancers become really competent they begin to use the dance increasingly for artistic expression. Simply moving to music is a form of artistic expression for most people:

People dance, I dance, because it's great to move to music....It seems to be hard-wired into our pleasure centers to move to music. (Marshall 1990)

When the basic dance movements become second nature, when the dancers comprehend how the music interacts with the movements, when the dancers have a sense of the geometry of the dance and the patterns that are being formed, then the dancers begin to see the dance form itself as art. Fred Park, a caller from Asheville, North Carolina, sums up this aspect of contra dancing:

It is like going to look at Picasso...and it's all a great big so-what, with eyes randomly put anywhere, and illogical form to...the twists and the turns of the body....And then...coming to terms with the same kinds of things Picasso was coming to terms with when he created any given piece...To the uninitiated, Picasso is a piece of junk. To the initiated, to the student, to the life-long aficionado, it is everything. (Park 1990)

The reasons that people come dancing change over time for each individual. Beginning dancers may come because they are attracted to the dance community as a group of interesting people. As dancers become more experienced, they may come as much for reasons having to do with the dance itself. The people who come are also changing. It is less a counter-cultural activity than it was in the early 1970s, and a wider variety of people are participating. Dan Pearl, a caller from Ashland, Massachusetts, observed:

When I started was like an alternative counter-culture activity. Nowadays [there are] more people involved with computers and technical vocations...contra dancing tends to attract that sort of people, and people in social work and health care....It's just a matter of changing demographics, and changing needs of the dancers. (Pearl 1990)

There are more dance events available now, and they can be found in many more regions of the country. Transportation has improved and dancers will travel farther afield to attend a dance. As a result, today's dancers come from a wider cross section of society than they did twenty years ago.

We have examined in some detail a number of the most common reasons that people like to participate in contra dancing. The dance event is in many ways molded to the reasons that the dancers participate, and the caller needs to be aware of why the dancers are coming in order to plan a program that will fill their needs. If the dancers are seeking a sense of community, then the caller needs to help the dancers feel that they are a group, by using words that imply this and by providing dances that remind them that they are part of a larger entity. If the dancers are coming in order to socialize and to meet members of the opposite sex, then the caller needs to provide dances in which there are satisfying interactions with those people. If the dancers are coming because it is a safe place to be, then the caller needs to make it a safe place to be, by being supportive and friendly to the dancers, and by providing dances that match the skill level of the group. If good music is important to the dancers, then the caller needs to use the tunes that the band is most skilled at playing, to take advantage of their talents to the full. If the dancers are coming for exercise, or for intellectual stimulation, or for artistic expression, then the caller needs to provide dances that are vigorous, dances that are challenging, and dances that are beautiful.

The Caller

The caller at the modern contra dance event is the person in charge of the evening's program, and as such he or she plays a key role in the success of a dance event. Others may have dealt with the hall rental, the sound system, the publicity, and other aspects of the event, but during the event itself the caller serves as both the organizer of the activity and the master of ceremonies. He or she decides what kinds of dances will be done (e.g. contra dances, square dances, couple dances and/or other formations), specifies the particular dances that will be danced and in which order, and schedules breaks for rest or refreshment. The caller can influence the music too, by making requests concerning which tunes will be used and the tempo at which they will be played.

The dancers put their trust in the caller to provide them with a successful and entertaining evening of dance, and consequently this individual has both a great deal of power over the event, and a great deal of responsibility for the event. John Krumm, a caller from Audubon, Pennsylvania, sees his role this way:

The dancers give over a certain amount of their power to me, and then I tell them what to do all night. And the only way I can justify taking that power is if I give it back to them, if I make something happen that's bigger. (Krumm 1990)

The relationship between the caller and the dancers develops through a process of negotiation. The dancers give the caller a position of leadership and responsibility so that they can come and dance and have a good time, without having to worry about what dance will be done next or what tune should accompany it. A good caller will use this position of power to further the goals of the community. By effectively using the power given by the dancers, the caller can help build a community in which beginning dancers are welcomed, new leadership is encouraged, and dancers are open to a variety of dance forms and dancing styles.

A caller who is not able to gain the trust and respect of the dancers forfeits this power. Larry Jennings, a caller and dance organizer from Belmont, Massachusetts, describes how this can happen:

The dancers know what's going on, and they can tell whether the leader is trying to exert power just for the sake of ego....If the leader is trying to be pedantic, or exert [power] satisfying his ego, or achieving things that are ill-advised, they won't respond at all. Such a leader will say, I can't control the dancers. They don't listen to a word I say. (Jennings 1990b)

The caller's role as the person in charge of a dance event involves a number of more specific roles. We have seen that the caller serves as the master of ceremonies, facilitating the evening's activities and announcing the order of events. The caller also serves in the role of teacher. It is customary at a dance event for each dance to be preceded by a walk-through, during which the caller will lead the dancers through the figures of the dance. This walk-through must be done quickly and efficiently, with the goal of maximizing the dancing time and minimizing the teaching time, and it must be done in a way that instructs the beginners without boring the experienced dancers. Effective callers are skillful teachers, and not simply callers of figures.

Another important role of the caller is to be the mediator between the music and the dance. Callers generally give the band an idea of what kind of tune is needed for a particular dance, and give cues for beginnings, endings, and tempo adjustments if they are needed. The caller is the facilitator of what Fred Park calls the "marriage between motion and music."

A skillful caller must help create the ambience for an event. If a caller is welcoming and respectful toward the beginning dancers, then the rest of the dance crowd will follow this lead; but if the caller expresses frustration with the new dancers, this negative attitude will spread throughout the dance hall. Fred Park offered me an example of such a situation:

When you go to a dance community and there is an attitude of disrespect generally on the floor for beginning dancers, because some caller who was a very important character in the eyes of the community could not consistently deal with the idea of teaching rank beginners....Their own personal disregard for beginning dancers caused as a whole [to frown] on beginning dancers. (Park 1990)

The caller is in this way responsible for setting the tone for the evening, and for helping to create a satisfying experience for every participant.

A caller may use the power given over to him or her to be a creator of traditions. Ted Sannella related to me how he initiated traditions associated with his dance formation, the triplet, which is performed in sets of three couples:

As the creator of the form, I also created the tradition to go with it. The first thing they have to do when they get on the floor in formation is to touch everybody in their set. They have to shake hands and meet them, introduce themselves....The other...tradition is one that has sort of evolved from the old joke about the numbers1....When I get up and I say, "OK, we're going to do Ted's Triplet number twenty four!" everybody cheers: Yaay! Twenty four! That's from the old joke with the numbers. (Sannella 1990a)

The caller thus serves in many roles, at least potentially: as the master of ceremonies, as a teacher, as the coordinator of the music, dance, and dancers, as a force in creating an ambience for the event, and as a creator of new traditions.

The Program

The amount of pre-planning which goes into the program for a dance event varies with the individual caller. Some callers will plan an evening of dance in great detail beforehand, while others depend upon on-the-spot decision-making throughout the course of an evening. The problem, of course, is that there are always unknowns in the planning of an event, especially when a caller is leading a dance in a place where he or she has not been before, and a pre-planned program may have to be revised or thrown out altogether at the last minute. Even at a home dance one does not always know who will be there, or when what caller Dan Pearl refers to as the "bus load of beginners" will arrive at the back door. Most callers do some degree of pre-planning, and then deviate from their programs in response to the particular needs of the participants at the event in progress.

When caller Larry Edelman leads workshops, he tells prospective callers that they should ask themselves three questions in planning a program, and ask them in this particular order:

One is, what can the dancers do?...The second question is, what do they want to do? And the third question is, what do I want them to do? And if you vary from that order of questions, you're going to get stuck. You're going to get calleritis, which is a dreaded disease where you become more important than anyone else in the room. (Edelman 1990)

Using these questions as a basis, the caller can select dances that seem appropriate for a given group on a particular occasion, and use these selections as a basis for the program.
A common approach to programming is to choose a group of dances from which to work, perhaps twice as many as there will be time to call, and then to select specific dances from that pool to meet the particular needs of the evening in progress. Caller Fred Breunig from Putney, Vermont, takes this approach:

I like to sit down for a time sometime before the dance,...anywhere from half an hour to an hour, and just sort of focus on what is likely to happen, what sort of people are likely to come, and what level of dancing is likely to be there, and just jot down some ideas of things that I feel like doing....I'll create an evening as the evening progresses, and see what feels right for the next thing. (Breunig 1990)

Ted Sannella is a good example of a caller who likes to plan his programs in as much detail as possible. He not only plans the dances he wants to use, but he tries to match a tune with each of these dances beforehand:

I carry things further than most people, because I'm a perfectionist. I don't leave any more to chance than necessary. I spend hours planning programs....And quite frequently at dances I bring my tape recorder and I tape the actual program, the music that was played....When I'm using a particular band, I go to find a tape of that band....And when I'm making up my program, I play the tapes....and I'm trying out the dances that I'm going to use, to see which tune seems to fit it...the best. But I tell the musicians if you have a problem with that tune, do something in that style. (Sannella 1990a)

Ted Sannella also keeps careful records of his programs, as do several other callers whom I interviewed, to avoid repeating programs with the same group of people and to keep a record of which dances were most successful:

I...make notes on the program as to how things went....If something went real well I put three arrows. If it didn't go quite so well, I put two arrows. If it was a bomber I put one, or I even put a down arrow. (Sannella 1990a)

Other callers that I interviewed are proponents of the spontaneous approach and prefer to wait to see how the evening develops, choosing on the spot those dances that seem to fit the crowd. Dudley Laufman and Steve Zakon both prefer this approach:

I never have a program....When I've gone down to different dance camps...I generally have sort of a plan. But I like to go with the flow, see what's going to happen...because once the crowd starts coming, in the very beginning you might have four really excellent dancers, and you're doing something. And then all of a sudden you're deluged with kids from a camp, and you have to change the whole thing. So I don't go in there with any preconceived idea of what it's going to be like. (Laufman 1990)

I think there's a lot of people that would be very uncomfortable with how, dare I say, relatively unprepared I am....I'm at times during the night sitting up there with, you know, the band is playing and it's getting near the end of another dance, and I'm about to pick a new one, and I'm like, well uh, you know,...I'm really racing for a decision. (Zakon 1990)

Whether one is a proponent of detailed planning, or a risk taker in the spontaneous camp, there are some basic principles and guidelines that most callers use in their programming. Some of these principles have to do with the pattern of the whole evening, while others have to do with the selection of the specific dances used to fill that evening.

An evening dance should have both a unifying concept that ties it together into a whole, and a degree of variety and balance that makes it interesting and challenging for the dancers. David Kaynor gave me an example of a unifying concept through his description of a particular evening:

I did a dance over in G--- last Saturday night. And G--- has a higher percentage than anywhere else I go of terminal beginners, people that are beginners all their lives, you know....So I deliberately stayed away from...dances that required a lot of individual decision-making. It was also quite warm that night...and I thought, why tire all these people out?...So my concept for the evening was that I wanted to keep everybody busy...but I didn't want them to be thinking too much. And I also didn't want to get them exhausted. So I did a lot of dances where the twos were really inactive...[where] the ones did a "swing" and the twos watched, or the twos did a "swing" and the ones watched...where there were a lot of opportunities for rest. (Kaynor 1990b)

As this example shows, the general concept behind a particular event is related to who will be there, their skill level, and the environment in which the dancing will take place. Within the boundaries created by these considerations, a dance event will exhibit balance and variety. Dan Pearl explained to me how this is accomplished:

[What makes a good evening?] Balance. That's the short answer....I try to feature some old dances, some new dances, dances by a lot of composers, dances which feel kind of different, dances which start differently from one another....Balance in the physical demands you put on the dancers, balance in the mental demands. (Pearl 1990)

Carol Kopp sees this variety as one way of assuring the community's continuing growth:

An issue for me is providing a certain amount of variety in the community. I think that's what keeps dancers in the community, is if they can continue to grow in some way. (Kopp 1990)

In planning an evening of dance, a caller will generally divide the evening into several parts, with breaks in between. The most common way to plan an evening is to break the evening into two halves and have a fairly long break in the middle. George Marshall does it this way:

The way to structure an evening is that we play two sets. We do about an hour and a half set, and take between a fifteen and twenty minute break, and then finish off the other hour and fifteen [minutes]....We do a set of three contras, and a couple dance, and another set of three contras and a waltz in the first half. And in the second half usually it's two or three dances and a couple dance, and then two or three dances and a waltz again. And after the break we often put in a Scandinavian dance, which is usually, but not always, a hambo. (Marshall 1990)

Other callers think of an evening as consisting of three parts—an introductory phase, a period of more difficult dances, and a winding down phase. Fred Park put it this way:

An evening, just like a dance all by itself, just like a moment in the theater, just like a good piece of literature, it has a beginning, and a middle, and an end. (Park 1990)

In particular, it is deemed effective to begin the evening with easier dances, to put the most complex ones about two-thirds of the way through, and to end with easier ones again. This kind of energy curve is justified by social, physical, and mental considerations.
Socially, the pattern of an evening dance can be compared to the story line of an individual dance:

You can look at both an individual dance and an evening on a process level. Hi, how are ya? Let's do something together. And it's been nice meeting you. (Elberger 1990)

The evening's program should echo the story line of a single dance, in that in the beginning of the evening you're interacting with everybody in the room....Toward the end of the evening...[the dancers have] settled on who they want to dance with....The last few dances I'll make sure that they spend a lot of time with their partner....You've got this kind of "V" kind of homing in on your partner through the evening. (T. Parkes 1990)

In terms of physical and mental effort, callers like to build to a peak somewhere in the middle of the evening, and then taper off, reducing particularly the number of dances that require mental effort. When the dancers are tired they are not able to concentrate successfully on a complex dance. Tony Parkes, a caller from Billerica, Massachusetts, explained to me this pattern:

I find that in the last third of the dance people tend to tune out mentally. You'll see this also in a single contra number, where people will spend the first few rounds of the number figuring out what's going on. Then for the bulk of the dance they'll be dancing up a storm and loving it. And then if the music goes on past a certain point, people will start blanking out and just forgetting where they're supposed to be, including experienced dancers....So in terms of mental effort I like to start low, get higher, and come back down. (T. Parkes 1990)

The successful evening usually begins with easy dances that are not taxing either mentally or physically. This is true for a number of reasons. First, the caller needs to size up the crowd to get an idea of how experienced they are, and how vigorously they want to dance. By starting the evening with something easy, the caller can watch and discern the level of dancing on the floor. Steve Zakon described to me how he sizes up a dance crowd:

The best thing you can do is just get the pulse of the crowd, find out how experienced they are, what they like to do. And you can tell just by watching them, what they respond to. You know, do they clap a lot after that one? Or do they stop and go, "heh heh, no, God I'm tired!" (Zakon 1990)

A caller may come prepared to call for a relatively experienced crowd, and discover that the dance crowd that night is not up to the planned program. This happened to Tom Hinds, a caller from Silver Spring, Maryland:

At this festival I didn't expect a lot of beginners. I thought it would be all experienced dancers. And I came with some pretty heavy-duty dances....But I did change my program....If I were doing my homework I would have checked that out. It would have been good to ask other callers who've called here. But instead I just assumed that it was, you know, cream of the crop dance gypsies. (Hinds 1990)

One way to gauge the crowd is to start an evening with the same dance every time. David Kaynor uses this technique:

One of the things I picked up from Fred Park many years ago was that it's OK to always start with the same dance. He likes to do that if he goes into a situation where he doesn't know what the crowd's like, or where he's real tired, or just got out of a car, or never had his supper, or is wired on caffeine, or whatever, he knows he can always get through that dance with no problem. And I took that to heart. (Kaynor 1990b)

This approach gives the caller a means by which to compare the abilities of different groups, and it also gets the caller off to an easy start with a dance that he or she can call without much thought.

A second reason for starting the evening off easy is that it is important to integrate the beginners into the dance. Therefore it is wise to program developmentally, beginning the evening with easy dances that will give opportunities for teaching the most basic figures, and then adding other figures gradually, a few at a time. Two callers explain this method of developing the dancers' skills throughout the evening:

A caller who programs correctly doesn't need a beginners' workshop....There's no reason why anybody who has even remotely average intellectual skills can't learn by adding a figure in each dance. (Kaynor 1990b)

When you're arranging dances in an evening you can really bring the dancers' skills along. You know, you can do a dance with four basic figures...and easy ones—"circles," "star," "go down the hall and back," "dosido,"...stuff that takes seconds to teach....And then maybe you throw in a "ladies chain"...and just keep building on what they already know....And sometimes you can do a pretty tough dance and they'll get through it. But it's a matter of not giving them too much at once. (Diggle 1990)

The developmental technique is very useful when a caller has a particularly hard dance to teach later in the evening. The caller can teach the more difficult elements of that dance one by one earlier in the evening, so that when the hard dance comes along the dancers are already familiar with all of its parts:

Identify[ing] that hardest spot in the dance, I then try to find another dance that has that same figure, or that same transition, surrounded by desperately simple figures, so that there's only this one moment that they have to think about. (Park 1990)

The beginning phase of the event, then, is a getting acquainted phase for both the caller and the dancers, and it is also a learning phase in which the caller makes sure that the dancers have the basic skills that they need in order to enjoy the dancing.

The middle of the evening is the best time to use the most difficult and exciting material. The dancers are warmed up physically, yet not too tired to absorb something new:

Generally I tend to want to have a couple of real brain-teasers....two or three dances that are really challenging....And people who [succeed] say, yeh, I did it! I just had a great time with this dance! That was a really hard dance and I did it, and there was all this neat stuff, and we got to do all these things, and I found my partner and did the "swing" at the end! (Kaynor 1990b)

Fred Park recommends ascertaining which is the hottest tune in the band's repertoire and putting that tune in the middle of the evening at that most exciting point in the dance event:

If there's any specific piece that [the musicians] all get really excited about, I make careful note of it. Because that has got to be in the middle of the evening. It's got to be the high point. It's got to be a really great dance that's just right for that tune. (Park 1990)

In this way, the dances in the middle of the evening bring to a peak both the mental and the physical efforts demanded of the dancers.

As the evening draws to a close, it is appropriate to slow down the dancing. The dancers are tired and they don't want to be challenged. They want familiar dances that don't require a lot of thought:

At the end of a program people are less interested in learning new things, and they want to do something that they already know. They want to be comfortable. They want to be able to dance with their partner. (Sannella 1990a)

David Kaynor describes what happens when a caller does not heed this guideline and calls a complex dance at the end of the evening:

I just succumbed to this desire to call hot dances. And the last dance of the night was a real brain-teaser, one where you've really got to know rights, lefts, and who's up the set and who's down the set, far around is halfway, how far around is three-quarters,...all this spatial relationship stuff which is just unfair to try to get a crowd of tired people to [do]....And it was a dance that required them to succeed, or else the set fell apart....Here we were at the end of a long hot night, all these tired people, I had to call the dance all the way through with this really great band playing really hot music, and there was my voice blasting in over it all: Find your partner and swing! Hurry Up! Find your partner! Circle left! Left! Only half way! (Kaynor 1990b)

Sometimes callers like to end an evening with a slower, more elegant dance, to let people cool down gradually. Other times they like to end with a dance that requires a lot of physical energy but not much thinking, to leave the dancers on a high:

I'll either have the last dance of the evening be real high energy and leave them, you know, screaming for more, or bring them down, slow it down. (Elberger 1990)

Sometimes the last dance will be a kind of a let-them-down-easy dance, kind of an elegant dance to more quiet music. And sometimes we'll just leave them four feet off the floor. It depends on the mood. (T. Parkes 1990)


1This is a reference to the old joke about the prisoner who told his jokes so many times that eventually he only had to shout out the number and everyone would laugh.